Back in May 2007 I sat down with Lewis Hamilton at Paul Ricard to do an interview for the much-missed Observer Sport Monthly. Hamilton, yet to win a race but already the most talked about driver in Formula One, had spent the day testing his McLaren for the upcoming Monaco Grand Prix. He had completed 98 laps, set the fastest time by a considerable margin and just sat through a two-and-half hour debrief with his engineers, yet was chatty and engaging despite the interruption to his own data analysis session. What struck me was that being a racing driver is bloody hard work.
My chat with the young Hamilton came back to me last month when I attended the DTM media day at Brands Hatch. A couple of track sessions, firstly with Marco Wittmann in a DTM BMW and then with Jake Dennis in an Aston Martin race car had left me bruised and quite drained. “You wouldn’t believe what it’s like in the car, the forces that are on you,” said Hamilton 12 years ago. “I finish every race with a black line down my side where I’ve been pushed against the seat.” At Brands I did two, five-lap stints in the passenger seat of machines with a fraction of the performance of an F1 car. But I had an inkling of what Hamilton had been talking about.
A racing car of any kind is not comfortable. You are strapped in so tight that you fear all circulation will cease. It’s hot, it’s claustrophobic and it’s violent. The acceleration pushes you even further into the seat that you already felt part of, a stamp on the brakes sends your helmeted head flying forward and every trip over the kerbs has a bone-shuddering intensity. And all the time the driver is dancing on the pedals, working the wheel, feeling every slide through a super-sensitive backside and racing as hard as they can.
My experiences alongside Wittmann and Dennis was thrilling, hugely enjoyable and quite scary, yet I know that they were driving completely within themselves in cars that were not in full race specification. So a 100-minute grand prix must be quite something. In fact, a race in just about anything with more than “family saloon” performance would be more than enough for most of us.
So the next challenge for motorsport and broadcasters is to portray just what racing drivers are enduring because it all looks so serene until something goes wrong. It isn’t.
At Brands Hatch this weekend both DTM touring cars and W Series single seaters will be racing. Both are a long way from F1, but if you are watching, and you should, just think about how special, how tough and how brave these drivers are. You might have what it takes to be quick on a Playstation or an Xbox but that’s not being a racing driver, it’s not even close. These people are a breed apart and someone like Lewis Hamilton is almost beyond our comprehension.